There have been various informed and speculative explanations for the rather astonishing results of the recent district council elections. They were astonishing not only because the pro-establishment camp snatched a majority of the contested seats and the pan-democrats, by all reckoning, suffered a serious setback, but also because the voter turnout was much higher than forecast yet it did not benefit the pan-democrats as conventional wisdom dictated.
Many post hoc commentaries have said that 'district work' is critical, to explain why some pan-democrat big-wigs who were 'parachuted' into small constituencies were roundly crushed by young political novices. But how does one explain successful 'parachutes' like Michael Tien Puk-sun, who decided only at the last minute which constituency to run in?
Some pan-democrats blamed their defeat on their rivals' distribution of material benefit to entice constituents - the so-called 'snake and vegetarian dinners, moon cakes and rice dumplings'. This is a superficial criticism. District work covers a wide range of activities, from services to helping local people solve their day-to-day problems, including housing, welfare assistance, bus routes and community facilities. Many pan-democrat councillors also provide free legal counselling - is this not a kind of material benefit?
After three decades of practice in elections, Hong Kong voters have become more mature and rational. Candidates cannot expect to secure their votes with just vague promises and political sloganeering. Political exhortations, if they are to work, have to be brought down to the level of livelihood issues. As a former speaker of the US House of Representatives, Thomas 'Tip' O'Neill, once put it: 'All politics is local.'
One should not jeer at those service-type district councillors glibly described by one pan-democrat leader as 'plumbers' - meaning that they are too ready to help their constituents fix blocked water pipes and broken windows, but do not care about the 'big' issues. The truth is that many ordinary voters expect their councillors to give their heart to even the most mundane district work, to display a sense of service and humility, not political arrogance or behaving as a saviour only good at preaching.
Further, the same voters would probably expect different qualities from district as opposed to legislative councillors.
For too long, Hong Kong's democrats have taken for granted that they can win elections handsomely by hoisting their banner of fighting for democracy. They believe in the so-called golden rule, whereby pan-democrats enjoy a '60:40' advantage over the pro-establishment camp, and that a higher voter turnout would favour democrats.
Times have changed. The '60:40' divide is merely a fa?ade. The 'diehard voters' of the two camps are more likely to be around 30 per cent each, with the democrats enjoying a slightly larger base. This means that the preference of the 40per cent of voters in the middle can swing the result. In previous legislative elections and in the 2003 district council elections, right after the July 1, 2003 protest by half a million people against national security legislation, the swing voters came out in large numbers to punish the government and pro-establishment parties, reinforcing the perception of a pro-democrat voter majority.
This time, however, the swing voters went in the opposite direction. The pan-democrats have failed to leverage the universal suffrage issue - partly because Beijing has promised a timetable, and partly because this issue was already exploited in last year's so-called referendum vote triggered by the resignation of five pan-democrat legislators. That referendum was not a success.
Short of a clear electoral issue, the pan- democrats were driven onto the defensive. They also had to face public confusion over the bitter split between the moderates and radicals. More swing voters - normally the silent majority - turned out to cast a protest vote against some pan-democrats, disagreeing with their radicalism, rhetorical violence, political arrogance and disrespect for opposing views. It was not a simplistic 'right turn' by the middle class, as suggested by some commentators.
Although the pan-democrats have maintained their total number of votes compared with 2007, more people have voted for their rivals in protest. The people have spoken.
Anthony Cheung Bing-leung is an executive councillor and founder of SynergyNet, a policy think tank